Thousands of military personnel use Wiltshire’s Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) every year and all are unaware that just a few feet beneath their boots and armoured vehicles there lies a magnificent history dating back nearly two thousand years, some of which has remained a secret, until now.
The training area covers 25 miles x 10 miles, and was first purchased in 1897 by the War Office and has mostly remained in its original state ever since, making it an archaeologist’s dream! This enables experts to explore and uncover what and who existed there all those years ago, which is exactly what has been happening over recent weeks through Exercise Ring Giver.
Richard Osgood MBE, Senior Archaeologist with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation sets the scene:
“This project is part of Operation Nightingale which has been running for 12 years.
The aim is to give increased wellbeing and improve the recovery of members of the Armed Forces, both serving and veterans through using archaeology. Richard Osgood MBE
Defence Infrastructure Organisation
This latest site that we are working on is an Anglo-Saxon burial ground dating back to the seventh and eighth century.
Measuring over 94,000 acres SPTA is the UK’s largest training area providing live firing and a range of facilities for infantry, armoured vehicles, artillery, engineers, and aircraft.
“Because the Army has been here since the nineteenth century it means it has preserved the land as an archaeological landscape. It has prevented housing developments, road schemes and other infrastructure and as a result has made this an archaeological paradise and the best there is in western Europe. Everything you want to know about the history of the UK you can see in these fields and it’s the Army’s presence that’s made it possible, so long may it continue.”
Since the experts and dedicated volunteers commenced this dig, an astonishing 21 burials have been discovered in 20 graves at the site. Finds that have been excavated from the chalk and soil include knives, coins, glass beads, pottery, and jewellery, dating from the seventh century or put another way, 1400 years ago.
Crouched over one of the burials, gently dusting the chalk floor with a small brush and looking to discover more artefacts is Sergeant David Heron MBE. It is the first time he has been part of a dig team:
“It was the Army Multi-Cultural Network that brought this to my attention and I thought I’d give it a go. As a welfare worker my job is about concentrating on the person in front of me and their needs, which is exactly what I am doing here. I am focusing on that individual before me and doing my best to be mindful with the utmost respect. Then the process begins of creating a picture of who they were and the life they may have led. Mental focus is what this is and that really helps with my own wellbeing.”
An Apache helicopter passes overhead and a Warrior kicks up dust in the distance giving a sense of present inhabitants of SPTA meeting some of those that resided on this land many years ago.
Another of those working on the dig is concentrating on a further burial. Veteran Christopher Burdon served with 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and has always been interested in archaeology, he has been involved with unearthing the past for two years now:
“I struggled a bit with life after the military to be honest. A friend told me about Op Nightingale and how archaeology could help so I got involved and haven’t looked back.
For me it’s about the fresh air, it’s about being outside. There’s also a great camaraderie being around serving and ex-service personnel. It’s a safe space for us all and really helps with my mental wellbeing. Christopher Burdon
Although these archaeological experts use tried and tested methods to help form a picture of what they discover, it is modern military technology that they are calling on more often now which makes their work easier and increases accuracy too. Richard explains:
“There are so many skills within the Army that are perfect for archaeology. The Royal Engineers mapping and surveying expertise is one area we can call upon. The Royal Artillery with their Watchkeeper providing aerial photography is another. Fingerprinting and DNA testing as used by the Royal Military Police have also proved invaluable to us as well.”
As this latest excavation nears its conclusion, what happens next?
Richard Osgood once more:
“The graves are filled in; the soil is returned and we make it so that the farmer can have a hay crop here next year. The Challenger tanks, the Warriors and infantry will once again return to use this land for training unaware of the past that once existed beneath their boots.”